AMSTERDAM—Twenty eight paintings by Johannes Vermeer go on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam this week, the largest ever exhibition of works of the 17th-century Dutch master, known for his expertise at rendering light and intimate household scenes.
The show gathers half the works that Vermeer, who died aged 43 and worked slowly, is thought ever to have painted and three-quarters of those that still exist. He likely never saw so many of his own works together at one time.
Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits said Vermeer was a man who lived with a large family and had a busy life as an art dealer, but still managed to obsessively refine works of quiet beauty, bathed in light rendered with almost photographic accuracy.
“It’s this … complete focus and tranquillity in his paintings that we still love today,” Dibbits said.
Alongside famed works like “Girl With A Pearl Earring” (1664) and “The Milkmaid” (1659), the exhibit features Vermeer’s two known outdoor paintings, several large canvases, and a string of his portrayals of women—including playing instruments, reading and working.
“What’s quite striking when you look at Vermeer is that in his paintings, it’s mostly women who are the protagonists,” said curator Pieter Roelofs, noting Vermeer had seven daughters.
Though no letter written by Vermeer exists, a key document is an inventory of possessions drawn up after his death, which left the family in debt. Furniture and many objects mentioned on the list appear in the paintings.
Roelofs said major advances have been made in understanding how Vermeer worked, including identifying pinholes at the focal point in some paintings such as “The Milkmaid,” part of a system of strings he used to help ensure perfect perspective.
Artists and scholars dispute whether Vermeer may have made use of a ‘camera obscura’, a forerunner of the modern photocamera.
Roelofs said Vermeer’s works are more than something a good eye and skilled hand can create. Recent analysis shows the composition of “The Milkmaid” changed several times, notably by stripping things out to simplify it.
“That is what Vermeer is: it’s never good enough and he keeps working on it until he thinks its sufficient to hand over to clients,” Roelofs said.
Author Tracy Chevalier, whose novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was adapted to a movie of the same name, said for her the exhibition evoked an image of Vermeer as a reserved man who “plays his cards close to his chest.”
“His paintings are so quiet and there are no children … he must have compartmentalized his life and said ‘no, no kids in the studio’.”
Museums in Germany, France, Japan, Britain, Ireland, and the United States contributed to the exhibition, which opens on Friday and runs until June.
By Toby Sterling